Can’t Say “No”?  Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am a senior manager in what is essentially a call center. I am hoping you can help me. I am too nice. 

I am a giver; I come from a long line of nice, generous givers. My Mom ran a dentist’s office and headed several volunteer committees, headed up events at our church and was forever dropping off casseroles for someone in the neighborhood who was having a crisis. 

People were always calling her and asking for help, money, favors. And while it irked me watching people take advantage of her sweet, patient generosity, I have somehow turned into her. People are taking advantage of me at work and in my personal life. 

The result is that I am a worn down frazzled wreck. I am exhausted all the time. I am neglecting the people I really care about, and certainly myself. My friends tell me that I need to have boundaries and say no, but I just don’t know how to do it. Help?

Worn Out

Dear Worn Out,

Givers are critical to communities and organizations, so on the behalf of humanity, I thank you.  And, I hear your pain and I have the prescription for you. Dr. Henry Cloud literally wrote the book on this: Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life and you should get it STAT.

It is written specifically for Christians, but it works even if you aren’t Christian. Dr. Cloud helps people understand how to manage in a culture that encourages people to be nice and giving.

Having trouble with boundaries is often tied to deep seated psychological needs paired with strongly held values and requires more expertise, time and space to address than I can offer in a short blog post.  Dr. Cloud’s book will help you understand what is driving your behavior, and offer tips to help you overcome your resistance to changing it.  I can however, offer a couple of tactical tips that you might think about trying out immediately.

From this moment on don’t say “yes.”  To anything.  You don’t have to say no, not yet, that is the advanced class.  But when someone–anyone– asks you to do something, say “maybe, let me check my schedule and my commitments,” or “I would love to help out, let me think about it, check with my boss, discuss with my spouse…” Then say:  “Please check back with me next week and I will let you know.”  You may not want to do this with your boss, but you certainly can with anyone else.  This last part is important because it keeps the responsibility for follow up on the requestor – it isn’t one more thing you have to remember to do.

Make a list of what is most important to you and put everything in priority order.  Here is an example I have seen from others.

  1. My Spouse and Kids
  2. My Faith
  3. My Parents
  4. My Health & Well being
  5. My Career

I personally have struggled and don’t always succeed at putting my own health and well being in the top three but I highly recommend that you try it.  Every time you help someone else, you are actually putting their needs before your own and causing more stress in your life. You need to ask yourself the hard question—are they worth it? You may be surprised that many of the people you go out of your way to help are at the bottom of your list, or not actually even on it.

Every time you consider something someone has asked you to do, check your other commitments to determine what is most important to you and see if you can fit it in.  Chances are you can’t without compromising your commitments to what you have said is at the top of your list.  Put your list on post it notes and place them everywhere you hang out, as a constant reminder.  This is just something to think about for now, when you start your serious work on boundaries, it will come in handy.

Reset expectations. You have trained untold amounts of people to believe that you will jump immediately to help them.  You will need to re-train them, and they will resist. Start by getting time on your side. Do not pick up the phone unless it is someone on your list.  Do not respond to texts right away from anyone not on your list.  Do not even open emails from someone not on your list except for at designated moments in your work day.  Take a deep breath, choose to do something that is a priority and move along.

If you put some time and space between yourself and the person who needs your immediate help, they will almost always find somebody else to help them by the time you loop back to them.

Repeat to yourself “I am not an infinite resource.” Remember, nobody is going to be served if you end up in the hospital with a case of whatever from wearing yourself down.

You are going to have to make some hard changes – get Dr. Cloud’s book or any other book on this topic and get to work. I am rooting for you Worn Out, truly I am.  You are an amazing, kind, and generous person.  You are also an endangered species that must be protected.  We need more people like you in the world, so please treat yourself like the precious resource you are.



About the author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

2 thoughts on “Can’t Say “No”?  Ask Madeleine

  1. Hi Madeleine

    Another thoughtful response to an important, not uncommon problem, particularly for women. My feeling is that you’re on the right track pointing out that deep-seated psychological needs and drivers are usually at the bottom of an inability to say no. But here I’d add that not having been able to observe, learn and absorb from a good exemplar in childhood and adolescence is also an issue. Such an exemplar would be someone who was able to say no in an assertive, respectful way that valued his/her own needs whilst not invalidating the needs of others. And possibly someone who helped the child/adolescent think through these matters for themselves whilst learning from doing. The ability to say no can depend on a deep-seated recognition of the value of all (oneself included!), as well as the fact that in order to give one has to take care of oneself first of all. I hope ‘worn out’ takes your advice to really get to grips with what’s at bottom of this. Kind people are precious, and they need to be encouraged to be as kind to themselves as they are to others…


Leave a Reply